Four reasons why criticisms of Harper’s foreign policy are doomed to fail
by David Carment
January 22, 2014
Over the past year or so, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s foreign policy has seen a barrage of increasingly frank, sharp and clear-cut criticisms in newspapers, blogs and journals.
Most of these criticisms are directed at key items in the current government’s foreign policy agenda, such as the prioritization of trade, the lack of interest in multilateralism and the pursuit of international development through private sector solutions.
There is a virtual cottage industry of scholars who have more or less established themselves as pivotal influential players, whose job it seems is to draw attention to the lack of consistency and substance in the current government’s policies.
While I am sympathetic to those who believe that publicly criticizing the government is a necessary and important aspect of a functional democracy—and I have been one of those who take part in it—I also believe that much of these criticisms are either misplaced, in the sense that they are largely ineffective, or counterproductive.
That is, they contribute to the illusion that we are still a country where debate and the exchange of ideas can actually result in meaningful change. I would actually go further to recommend that continued efforts in criticizing this government by taking issue only with the substance of its policies is wrong-headed.
I would propose that an alternative strategy is needed if we are to resurrect our faith in accountable, effective government.
In brief, I believe we critics are part of the problem by perpetuating the idea that foreign policy is the domain of a handful of experts whose interpretations on questions of substance are all that matter.
What I would suggest is that while substance is important, so too is process, perhaps more so. This is a point I will return to below.
Here are four main reasons why criticisms of this government’s foreign policy aren’t working.
1. The CIDA merger
First, many of the most important criticisms focus on the way this government has chosen to re-engineer Canada’s foreign policy priorities by reshuffling the bureaucratic deck through the amalgamation of Canada’s aid agency with its foreign affairs department.
But criticisms of this particular decision have been both contradictory and inconsistent. The most egregious offenders are those critics who applauded the decision to fold the agency into the department, which they saw as a rationalization of our foreign policy platform.
Those same defenders, many of whom were former diplomats and politicos, were commensurately outraged when it was announced that the number one Foreign Affairs priority would be the enhancement of Canadian economic development through trade and commerce.
So on the one hand, these critics upheld and defended a core policy change that would, they argued, generate greater efficiencies and coherence where none existed before.
On the other hand, they then dismissed the economic agenda as a failure to act in Canada’s best interests. Coherence, but only on our conditions.
Whatever one may think of this new trade agenda, it is clear to me that many of its critics are only tangentially interested in the structural changes in our foreign policy priorities that it brings, and more so the usurpation of the existing power structures within the foreign policy decision-making process that it would undoubtedly produce.
2. Harper’s leadership
Second, despite recent efforts to present Stephen Harper to the world through carefully-timed visits to India, China and the Middle East, the prime minister and his strategists have not given the public an opportunity to decisively conclude that the man has leadership qualities in a crisis situation.
These are characteristics with which we could gauge his mettle and benchmark him against Canada’s great foreign policy decision-makers.
For the Conservatives, that is a good thing. Consider those prime ministers who have, at least one time in their tenure, faced a decisive moment in foreign policy, a crisis that could galvanize or divide the nation.
In fact, the Chrétien era was pockmarked with decisive moments that both united and divided Canadians—whether it was the Balkan wars, the Congo, Rwanda or Iraq.
But such decisiveness and leadership are easy targets for critics. The fact that Stephen Harper has gone out of his way to avoid being associated with any such leadership moments despite having presided over the longest war in Canadian history in Afghanistan and a dubious mission in Libya is telling.
He just hasn’t given his critics much to work with, in the same way that Chrétien was able to draw out opposition to his stand on Iraq, for example. To be sure, there are some members of the Harper government that have set themselves up for criticism and have fallen by the wayside as a result.
Two of CIDA’s former ministers met that fate, for example, but left Harper himself relatively unscathed.
But that too is consistent with an overarching strategy in this government to sacrifice the drones in order to save the mothership.
3. Election mode
A third reason is the simple reality that this government is in constant election mode. Running for office is the new normal, or the new political governance as some have described it.
A constant state of electioneering means every policy instrument, every piece of communication, every effort to engage the public is carefully structured and crafted to generate a maximum politically decisive outcome.
Gone are the days of public consultation, questionable trial balloons and open-ended public debate. Instead, we are treated to political staffers, and senior advisors whose job is not to sustain the public service but to support the government.
They enjoy a quasi-independent status as part of the government, but have a deep reach into the bureaucracy. Their increasing presence means, in essence, that the information flow is not directly from the public to their elected representatives or vice versa. That information is now mediated, massaged and moderated through these political appointees.
One can appreciate how irrelevant public discourse can become in such situations, since a government now seeks and acts on the opinions of its advisors rather than those who might be more critical of it.
The fourth and final reason is that most criticisms of this government’s foreign policy have been focused on outcomes and substance, as I have noted above.
An outcome is the end result of a foreign policy, and pertains to questions of how that policy improves the lives of Canadians and effects our global standing. Critics charge that a Harper foreign policy is bound to generate outcomes that will ultimately lead to a diminishment of Canada’s place in the world.
A classic criticism in this regard is our failure to be a multilateral player on the world stage. Notwithstanding the theoretical claims that can be brought to bear on both sides of this debate, the real issue here is that neither side has provided hard evidence that their policy actually produces superior outcomes.
In the absence of hard evidence, the battle here is less about preferred policy choices and more about the legitimacy of the outcomes they produce. Such battles are ideological and inherently polarizing. They invite only one kind of debate, which divides rather than unites.
By way of closing, I return to my point earlier and suggest that critics would be better off focusing on process legitimacy, and less on debates over outcomes.
Process legitimacy is, simply put, the way in which foreign policy choices are made.
It is how you, I and all Canadians stay informed and engaged in a discussion and debate on the choices that our governments make.
Process legitimacy is participatory by design, and a crucial component of strong democratic institutions. It requires a flexible, transparent and accountable government and well informed and engaged parliamentarians.
Process legitimacy requires that the government has a clear understanding of its capabilities and understands how those means can be matched to achieve specific ends. Canadians need to understand and endorse those policy choices because it is their tax dollars that are footing the bill.
Ultimately it means that we need to stop thinking of foreign policy as a large envelope of discretionary spending for elites to constantly fight over. In brief, critics of this government’s foreign policy should consider the limitations of their current efforts and focus their energies instead on how to improve the process of foreign policy making.
Foreign policy choices are simply too important to be left solely in the hands of elected officials and political staffers who are in the business of seeking re-election.
David Carment is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.